Discover Yourself with Reading
[ Issue 35 ]

Reading brings Emily Bronto much happiness

Bikwil will always sing the praises of Reading

Discover Yourself with Reading

John Scott Cree here muses on the joys and benefits  — even in the fast-paced modern world — of a leisure activity that can be challenging as well.

"Reading can stretch us."

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Discover Yourself with Reading — John Scott Cree


It would be easy to think that reading, as a leisure activity, was finished. You don't seem to need more than a Video/DVD and a Walkman for train journeys. If you must read, the free daily Metro means you don't even need to buy a newspaper. Written language is simpler, from University course work to office reports. We’re told to use short sentences, words of no more than three syllables, active not passive verbs. Then from nowhere comes Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Not a hit with critics, but the reading public loves it. Why, when you need a dictionary by your side to make sense of it? Because reading can stretch us and, like sport or music or art or writing, help us discover ourselves. We engage with the printed word at our own pace, not in the allotted 120 minutes of a feature film.

Someone, not yet 50, told me that he was reconciled to “not going anywhere” in his job; that he had learned to live with himself and looked forward to retirement. In some ways I envied him. He had found contentment, whereas many of us fail to recognise it when it was there. But without reading, I would still struggle on my own and not know myself to anything like the same extent.

Most of us find what we like by chance. In the Daily Mirror Quizword, I came across Hobbes and the importance of staying in the race; I knew then I wanted to stay in it and also became interested in reading a bit about philosophy.

I was given a Karl Popper paperback and found his reassuring gem that people do not get on through merit, they simply happen to be in the right place, at the right time, with a face that fits. We can see the reverse in education and elsewhere. At my primary school, many were convent kids from a nearby “orphanage”. Most of them seemed to have difficulty with lessons. As a result, they never finished set work and were unable to move on to more interesting classroom activities.

One term, a huge metal bin of modelling clay arrived. Those who finished their mental arithmetic, problems and spellings etc were allowed to use this until the end of each lesson. For a couple of weeks, I struggled to make a pitcher. I gave up and clay lost its appeal for most of us, as it became harder and a rather nasty brown colour at the edges. At this point, it was decided to give the slower learners a go, before the clay was dumped. Niger, one of the convent kids, set to work with a will. With lashings of water and a gouging thumb he coaxed and twisted a spout shape that was smooth and functional, onto a robust little gravy jug made from that old, hard clay that the rest of us had discarded. The finished result was superb and perfectly proportioned. Thicker than anything I’d attempted, it was better conceived and executed than any of our efforts. What nonsense to think that only bright kids (those with “merit”) should be able to use the clay. Niger had innate skills that others not only didn't have, but were also unable to acquire. For once, he had narrowly missed being in the wrong place at the wrong time with a face that didn't fit.

Again by chance, I encountered the superfluous man of Russian literature. He can be helpful to those of us who feel out of our element. It's possible to see the superfluous spirit resulting in the triumph of individuals over adversity, in dissidents like Shcheransky and Solzhenitsyn. The same spirit produced individuals from Renaissance men like Leonardo to the inventor Cody or the magician Houdini.

Saltykov-Shchedrin writes about a very wise minnow who, realising the dangers of being eaten by the pike, makes himself a hole in the river bank and stays there in safety. He comes out only at night and eats only at noon, after the other fish have eaten. He never marries and lives to be more than a hundred years old. As he is dying, through natural causes, he realises that, through fear, he has achieved nothing. Moreover, if every fish were to live like him, life in the river would disappear.

In one of England's stately piles there is a dialogue scratched on a window, allegedly, by Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth:

He: Fain would I climb, lest I should fall
She: If thy heart fail thee, climb not at all

We are exhorted to “seize the day”. “Man's reach should exceed his grasp” said Browning and it seems important never say “no” to anything; to look for and grasp opportunities when they arise. Before these post-modernist times, J S Mill said that we are at liberty to do what we wish, as long as we don’t harm others. But to make the world go round, this can't be enough — we need actually to do good.

Happy reading and happy doing.

[ John Scott Cree is a musician and writer; his Web site may be found here ]

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